From dilapidated to delightful

Oak Park two-flat gets new lease on life

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Carole Jackson knows rehab. Armed with a degree in architecture and an MBA, the Oak Park resident has spent over 30 years in the business of rehabbing older residences throughout Chicago and its suburbs. 

While she has worked on smaller projects on her own Oak Park homes in the past and on many large-scale projects through her business, Building Solutions, Inc., in 2017 she purchased a two-flat on Clinton Avenue that gave her a new focus. 

She decided that she could take her usual approach of keeping a building's historic character intact but decided to try making this rehabilitation as sustainable as possible.

The two-flat was starting to show its 121 years of age in more ways than one. Tired stucco with holes, rotting wood trim and an interior that had been chopped up throughout the years into multiple living units, were just a few of the problems. 

Add in outdated plumbing, electrical and heating systems, and Jackson had her work cut out for herself. Intending to live in one unit while renting out the other, Jackson brought on general contractor Michael Gold and prepared to make the building livable for another 100-plus years.

Jackson notes that during her purchase of the home, she found out that it had originally been built in South Oak Park and moved to its current location. 

"I believe it was moved sometime in the 1940s," she said. "It has a newer cinder-block basement, which probably dates to when it was moved. It was a single-family home and they converted it to a two-flat, possibly when it was moved."

She says that the building's single-family home roots were evident in the second-story apartment, where an odd kitchen had been retrofitted into a back room, and other rooms on the floor were clearly meant to be spacious bedrooms.

When she saw the house, squirrels and birds had chewed their way through the fascia and were living in the attic. At least 10 human tenants were living in the building, including some who lived in the basement and were using a laundry sink set up with a garden hose as a make-shift kitchen sink. 

The tenants were moved out before the purchase was complete, and she set about renovating the home, looking to the past and clues within the home for her decorating direction.

The home's original molding and hardwood floors point to its age, and she kept them in place with her contractor's help. Wherever possible, she kept old doors, even reusing some unnecessary French doors as doors to newly-constructed closets. 

When she needed additional doors, she turned to ReUse Depot in Maywood and found perfect matches to the home's original doors.

"Someone told me to go to a local store because they were more likely to have doors from the same time period," Jackson said.

In her unit's bathroom, Gold insisted that Jackson keep the mirror and side lights. He rewired the fixtures, and Tayloe Glass repaired the mirror. The period sink and faucet were gifts from her new next-door neighbor who had been storing them in his garage. Jackson is not sure of their provenance but thinks it is likely they are original to her home or her neighbor's.

Maintaining original materials and reusing others in new places is an environmentally sound method of rehabilitation, and Jackson decided to take it a step further and make the entire process as sustainable as possible. She and Gold recently received a sustainability award from the village for their efforts, but for her, the reward is in the building itself.

"Since I live here myself, I decided to do more sustainability work in terms of lighting and other details," Jackson said. "I wanted to give back to Oak Park since we're such an environmentally aware community."

Jackson opted to keep the front windows because of their historic nature, and replaced other windows with a low-e, double-paned glass, which she calls the number one energy saving step she and Gold took. 

"We gave the old windows to a gentleman in town who restores old windows so that he can reuse the glass," she said.

Jackson credits Gold for coming up with a green approach to the HVAC system. Rather than replace the hot water-based system of radiators with forced air, they two decided it made sense to revamp the original system. 

Not only would they save on material costs, but radiator heat is considered preferable to forced air, and she points out that it enabled them to protect the original features of the older home.

Noting that Gold put his past working experience on submarines to use, Jackson says he, "sanded down and stripped paint off of the existing radiators and replaced the valves so that you could really control the heat in each room."

A new boiler and hot-water heater do the job more efficiently than their old counterparts, and high-efficiency window air-conditioning units, along with ceiling fans, cool the apartments in the summer.

Throughout the two units, the duo also updated the lighting, keeping a few antique fixtures that were original to the home, and replacing their less-vintage counterparts with efficient LED lighting. 

Each unit formerly had one bathroom, and they added a second, master bathroom to each unit, running new copper water lines and including sustainable features such as low-flow toilets, high-pressure/low-water flow faucets and high efficiency washers and dryers.

At the end of the day, Jackson loves living in her new space and thinks her second-floor tenants, recently relocated from the UK, are enjoying their new home as well. 

Aiming to make the project sustainable, she notes that without even consulting the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) checklist, she and Gold created a two-flat that could very well qualify for LEED certification. 

While the house checks many boxes including innovation and design process, water efficiency, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality, it also scores highly for that ever-important quality: location. 

Being steps from Metra and the Green Line, not to mention shops and restaurants, makes leaving the car at home something that is easy to do.

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